Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Dialectics of War

Hegelian dialectics influenced Clausewitz as much as Marx. Both used his historiography as the basis of their analysis.

Clausewitz after 9/11

The Prussian master's brilliant analytical method in On War provides richer insights into the contemporary wars against terrorism than anything his glib critics have come up with.

Clausewitz thought of war in a framework that included his formula, but went way beyond it. That framework, known as the trinity, is usefully re-translated in Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century by Christopher Bassford, editor of the Clausewitz Home Page (4). In Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century, Bassford has Clausewitz, in the famous final section of chapter one of book one of On War, keeping his theory ‘floating among’ three ‘tendencies’, as ‘among three points of attraction’. The three tendencies from which war is composed are:

  1. the blind natural force of primordial violence, hatred and enmity
  2. the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam
  3. the element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason.

Bassford’s direct translation of Clausewitz goes on: ‘The first of these three aspects concerns more the people; the second, more the commander and his army; the third, more the government.’

This passage is vital. Andreas Herberg-Rothe treats his formula’s nuances – war as both a continuation of politics and as involving other means – with the careful thought they deserve in the prologue to Clausewitz’s Puzzle . But Clausewitz revisionists do not stop their vulgarisation of the man with his formula. No: Clausewitz revisionists reveal a much wider crisis in bourgeois thought about war.

Clausewitz’s dialectical method

Clausewitz’s method in relation to military affairs will always remain relevant because of his grasp of the importance of polar opposites, and of change, to the totality of interactions that comprise war. Thus Clausewitz both hated and admired Napoleon. His famous concept of friction defined it as ‘the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult’ . As the British historian Michael Howard likewise pointed out in 1983, Clausewitzian dialectics embraced the relations between means and ends; moral factors and physical forces; historical knowledge and critical judgments made in the field; absolute, or ideal, war and real war; attack and defence, and tactics and strategy . In their different books, Herberg-Rothe and Beatrice Heuser fret, as Germans tend to, that Clausewitzian theory inevitably leads to militarism à la Adolf. But they make an even bigger mistake, again in the manner of modern Germans, when they dismiss the way in which Clausewitz’s theory is underpinned by the dialectical philosophy of Georg Hegel (1770-1831).

In his admirable opening chapter to Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century, ‘Clausewitz and the dialectics of war’, Hew Strachan points out that the vitality and longevity of On War derive ‘in large part from its refusal to embrace fixed conclusions’. In this chapter too, and in the editors’ joint introduction, a long-needed counter-attack is mounted on Mary Kaldor. Back in 1999, her New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era used the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s, as well as war in Rwanda, to distinguish between ‘old’ wars, involving nation states and political motives, and ‘new’ ones, which also involved organised crime and large-scale violations of human rights. In Strachan and Herberg-Rothe’s indictment, then, New and Old Wars turned Clausewitz into ‘not the analyst of war, but the representative fall guy for “old wars”’.

What the critics themselves miss out is that Clausewitz, like Marx, pretended to be neither an encyclopaedist nor a Nostradamus. Both men, rather, encouraged people to think carefully, creatively and self-critically about laws of motion, whether they pertained to capital or to war. Indeed Marx himself, so often written off as an economic determinist, had this to say about ‘economics’ and war. War, Marx wrote in his economic notebooks, ‘developed earlier than peace; the way in which certain economic relations such as wage labour, machinery etc develop earlier, owing to war and in the armies etc, than in the interior of bourgeois society. The relation of productive forces and the relations of exchange also especially vivid in the army.’

Although war generally grows out of the dull relations of peaceful political economy, Marx knew that it could have its own effect precisely on those relations. Clausewitz, as Strachan’s book reminds us, was invigorated by the ideas of the German Enlightenment; he ‘knew full well that policy can expand war as well as limit it’. For both men, the dialectical relations of society were the key thing. No picking of holes, or told-you-so reference to posthumous events, can take away from the insights that still follow from applying their method.

The COMPLETE translation by
Colonel J.J. Graham

published by N. Trübner,
London, 1873

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